States See Greater Post-Election Policy Role
By John Nagy, Staff Writer
Some of the nation's leading governors say the states are in a strong position to shape public policy over the next two years following the virtual dead heat presidential and congressional Nov. 7 election results.
"Someone is going to have to step up and say in a major way, we've got to address these problems'. The public is not going to sit around for either two years or four years and wait for the next election," Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D), chairman of the National Governors' Association (NGA), told Stateline.org.
Glendening indicated that a meeting of the governors and members of Congress who have come from their ranks is in the works for early January. He said "the overwhelming majority" of governors are unified in their national policy priorities and have a history of working across party lines.
Governors from both parties have served notice that they plan to play an active role in policy deliberations.
At a short give-ands-take with reporters that took place during an otherwise closed training seminar for rookie governors in Utah last week, Glendening (D) prophesied that he and his colleagues "may be the strongest catalyst to stimulate real decision making at the national level," according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
His comments raised a chorus of agreement from Republican colleagues John Engler of Michigan and Mike Leavitt of Utah, the newspaper said.
"The extraordinarily close division on the vote for the White House as well as for both houses of Congress means that there's a very distinct possibility that there's going to be an inertia, a lack of ability to bring some major movement together to solve some of the key problems facing this country," Glendening told Stateline.org.
NGA's executive committee, a key test group for any interstate policy consensus, is a lively mixture of conservatives, moderates and liberals. It includes Glendening, Engler and Leavitt, Democrats Paul Patton (Ky.), Ronnie Musgrove (Miss.) and Howard Dean (Vt.), and Republicans Mike Huckabee (Ark.), Dirk Kempthorne (Idaho) and Tommy Thompson (Wisc.).
"If we can walk in there with a range as diverse as Gray Davis of California and myself, and John Engler and Mike Leavitt, and say we've agreed that a prescription coverage bill really must move ... that can have some impact," Glendening said.
The Maryland governor said he expects healthcare reform "broadly defined" to top the governors' agenda, with attention to Medicaid, prescription drugs and CHIP to come first.
But observers outside the gubernatorial fraternity caution that if the governors hope to reclaim the agenda-setting power they gained due to devolution and the policy paralysis in Washington in the mid-1990s, they have plenty of work to do. Many analysts are skeptical that the governors can exert much influence on hot-button issues like healthcare and education reform.
"The current situation creates some opportunities that the governors may exploit to influence national policy, but their ability to exploit those opportunities is still being determined," said political scientist Troy Smith of Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.
Friendships aside, the states' influence is likely to be limited without formal channels for governors and powerful state legislators to move through, says government scholar Norman Luttbeg of Texas A&M University.
The author of several books on state government, Luttbeg scoffs at notions that Washington gridlock may lead to a new state policy renaissance, after which innovations would trickle up to the federal level. He says the supposed influence of state reforms on federal policymaking during the golden age of devolution in the mid-1990s is "mythical."
"If your task was to identify what one of the states has had the greatest success in responding to social problems, you'd have problems coming up with an answer." Some states have made headway in particular areas, but "never across the board," Luttbeg said.
William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, disagrees, sounding an expectant note when it comes to states' influence in 2001.
"Most innovation begins in the states today. There's very little in domestic policy that Congress started. They only build on what is done in state and local government. Healthcare and education are both very good examples of that. And I think we're only going to see that trend get stronger," Pound said.